Disability is a fact of life for many, many people. As an umbrella term for the social consequences of bodily impairments and limitations, it is far more complex than any single bite-sized definition may suggest, and often brings with it societal stigma and marginalization that otherwise able-bodied people do not and can not experience. While no truly accurate estimates of the amount of people living with disabilities around the world are available, disability intersects with the arts much more than one might otherwise think; however, its presence within any given subcultures within the arts is often overlooked, and its impact understated. Metal music is no exception to this oversight — yet not only is disability very present in our community, it has actually had a very substantial impact on the evolution, and even creation, of the genre.
(Before I start, it bears mentioning that I am writing this as an able-bodied person. Disability is not something I experience, and this means that I cannot speak for the experiences of disabled people. The purpose of this piece is to bring some awareness of the impact disability’s continued existence in metal music has had with regards to songwriting and such, but do keep in mind that there are indeed disabled people, invisibly or otherwise, who aren’t necessarily musicians but are still part of the community. As such, us abled people in the community ought to be mindful and respectful of their presence as well.)
Onward! To put things into context, we’re going to rewind almost an entire century to the year 1928, long before metal music existed in any form (or so I’ve been told). As the story famously goes, an 18 year old Romani guitar prodigy named Django Reinhardt suffered painful burns and partial paralysis in an accidental fire, after which he was told that guitar was to be a thing of his past. With two paralyzed left hand fingers, a heavily upset Django eventually taught himself how to play again, but developed an entirely new approach to jazz guitar in order to accommodate his disability and otherwise limited fretting hand reach; thus was born the genre of jazz manouche, or Romani jazz, which continues to exist today.
If you’re reading this as primarily a metal listener who takes more than a passing interest in metal guitar work, you’ve likely heard this story. Django remains, rightfully, a legend, and his work and influence is often cited by guitarists even today, including but not limited to Dååth’s Emil Werstler and Protest the Hero’s dastardly duo of Luke Hoskin and Tim Millar. Django’s music is celebrated in eponymous Django festivals around the world every year, and the music world has done an excellent job of keeping his substantial legacy alive. A certain budding guitarist from a few decades ago, however, particularly found Django’s story important.
Seventeen-year-old Tony Iommi was devastated when he lost the tips of two of his fingers in a terrible industrial accident back in 1965. While recuperating at the hospital, miserable at the prospect of potentially never playing guitar again, he was paid a visit by his firm’s manager, who played him — as one would imagine — a Django Reinhardt record. “It really inspired me to get on with it and start trying to play, even though my fingers were so sensitive and painful,” Tony was quoted as saying in an interview with VH1. And then came the revelation: “I had to try and make whatever I could sound big; because of my disability, I came up with another sound by tuning the guitar down.” While tuning the guitar down initially just meant loosening the tension enough to make playing easier, thus was born a huge central tenet of what was to become metal music — using dropped tunings for a more heavy and aggressive sound, and then augmenting said sound with distortion.
Tony’s band, Black Sabbath, needs very little introduction; if anyone’s pioneering influence on the genre is known, it’s theirs. Their eerie sound, driven primarily by his downtuned guitar riffs and the copious levels of distortion they’re played through, pushed the limits of what was rock music at the time to unprecedented levels of heaviness, thus essentially creating metal as we know it. “Of course, losing my fingertips was devastating, but in hindsight, it created something!” Tony added. “It made me invent a new sound, a different style of playing, and a different sort of music.”
Few other stories since have had nearly the same substantial effect on metal that Tony Iommi’s did, but that’s not to say that disability-driven musical innovation disappeared altogether. Reading, PA’s Rivers of Nihil are an up-and-coming technical/progressive death metal band whose sophomore effort, Monarchy, has been dominating projected best-of-year lists ever since the day of its highly anticipated release. As it turns out, however, Rivers’ vocalist Jake Dieffenbach was born with a significant hearing problem.
“It’s higher frequencies that are harder for me to hear,” Dieffenbach told host Matt Peiken in an interview as part of Metal Brainiac’s podcasts. “I’m more in tune with lower frequencies, as a vocalist and as a person. I definitely feel it had a huge influence on the way I sound, as a vocalist who is trying to evolve.”
As a concept album centred around the sun, Monarchy features some highly complex lyric work. Since most death metal bands tend not to give the lyrical aspects of their work all that much consideration — especially considering guttural and screamed vocals aren’t necessarily the most intelligible to begin with — a concept album of this scope was quite the undertaking, and vocal clarity was key in getting the story across.
“The only thing I really know how to do is sound like myself, when it comes to actually screaming, and then being able to do it in a way that’s compatible with the musical content that we’re delivering. So as far as what I’m particularly trying to do as a vocalist on Monarchy, it was really just trying to deliver the emotion behind the storyline, and trying to convey particular feelings in the lyrical content.
“I wear hearing aids, actually,” he added. “I am actually more than half deaf, and that has a huge role in the way I sound as a vocalist. I feel if I was able to hear more, I would probably explore other sounds that other people have created, but since I don’t necessarily hear things the way others hear them, I figured that I just have to do what I know — because this is the only way I know how to sound.”
From the early days of Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing” to Rivers of Nihil’s monstrously heavy and precise brand of death metal, disability has not only been present in the music we love, but has also directly shaped its very evolution to this point. Ultimately, disabled peoples’s presence and contributions remain an important and unfortunately often forgotten aspect of metal music, and the onus remains on the rest of the community to actively celebrate both their partaking in the music we all love as well as their incredibly important contributions to it.
The fact is that disability enables people in many cases to see, hear and experience things differently. From this stems a veritable cornucopia of different approaches, perspectives and insights into experiences that we often take for granted. A community that embraces these prisms, instead of focusing on the differences that generated them, can help the fruits of creativity grow where others might only see a barren field. When we draw the line, the intersection between metal and disability has so far been one which was, if unfortunate and often dangerous, also rich, intriguing and challenging.